THE pilot of Kobe Bryant’s doomed helicopter is being wrongly blamed and "victimized" over the crash – but did "everything right", a close friend claimed.
Mike Ballew, 72, who lives in the same condo complex as pilot Ara Zobayan in Huntington Beach, California, paid tribute to his friend and defended him from those who have blamed him for the crash.
He told The Sun: “From my point of view he [Ara] seems to have been kind of like victimized, to say that it was all his fault.
“Because he did everything right, he went up the right corridor, he came up behind the Burbank airport and then dropped down to the 101, tracking the 101 up to Calabasas.
“I think it was engine failure but it’s all speculation right now."
He added: “Ara was a great man. He was kind and humorous and dedicated.
“A happy guy and a good experienced pilot with thousands and thousands of hours flying time, he flew all kinds of equipment.
“He was dedicated to his craft and he was good at it.
"What a tragedy and what a loss for everybody, including Kobe and all those other people.”
It comes as aviation expert Robert Ditchey said that the helicopter crash was "totally avoidable".
New footage emerged apparently show Bryant's chopper circling, minutes before the fatal smash.
Ditchey told USA Today: "This was totally avoidable, and on the part of some people I can go as far as to say irresponsible.
"Here’s one of the most important people in the world who comes to a tragic end like this and you say, ‘Why? What the hell happened?’’’
“They’re in the fog, and you’re down hugging the ground trying to fly up the highway and barely able to see it.
"He’s down only 100 feet or so above the ground. In that area of the San Fernando Valley you have mountains on either side of you … and the clouds have obscured them, and you don’t have that much room to maneuver."
“The weather is not good enough for the police to fly,’’ he added.
NBA legend Kobe and his daughter Gianna, 13, both lost their lives when their helicopter smashed into the side of a hillside in Calabasas, California, before bursting into flames, in foggy conditions on Sunday morning.
College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and their daughter Alyssa, Christina Mauser, a coach at Kobe's Mamba Sports Academy, passengers Sarah and Payton Chester, also lost their lives.
The group, which had left John Wayne Airport in Orange County in fog at 9:06am and was on its way to Kobe's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks to play basketball.
Asked if he thinks his friend was caught out by the foggy conditions, retired professional football player and stuntman Mike, said: “I don’t know if anybody really knows that for sure.
"Yeah up there in Calabasas it was [foggy] but not where he left from, he left from Long Beach, then he went to Orange County, John Wayne airport to pick them up.”
Mike, who played football for the LA Rams in their previous stint in the city, said Kobe chose Ara to be his pilot and he had flown him “several” times, he said: “He was a seasoned pilot. Kobe has chosen him as his pilot.”
Mike hadn’t seen Ara for a couple of months but said they would often exchange text messages, he said: “He was a good friend because he lived in this complex, he owns a condo in here.
“We text back and forth. He always called me Mike Mike.”
Mike said Ara leaves behind a girlfriend called Tess, a paramedic who also flies in helicopters for her job, who he lived with in the complex.
On her LinkedIn profile she says she works as for the emergency transport rapid response team for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
No one answered the door at their apartment on Tuesday but on the doorstep were two packages – one addressed to Ara and another to Tess.
Mike said: “He was here with his girlfriend Tess. She is a helicopter medic, that’s what she did for a living, the irony of that.”
The 72-year-old said he used to rent his apartment to his best friend, the actor and reality TV star Lorenzo Lamas. The pair starred in the 1989 B-movie Snake Eater together.
Lorenzo, who quit acting to become a pilot, was also close to Ara and posted a photo of himself with the luxury Sikorsky S-76B chopper involved in the crash in September on instagram, indicating he had also flown it before.
The pair both flew for the operator Island Express Helicopters (IEX) who owned the doomed chopper.
Mike said: “We’re both distraught, we both knew him very well. It’s terrible what happened to him, especially all those other people not only him.
"But he’s overlooked. In the press it’s all about because Kobe was on board.”
Lorenzo, who flies passengers from the California mainland to Catalina Island for IEX helicopters, also paid tribute to Ara. Posting a photo of him on his instagram account, he wrote: “I miss you my friend. I will always remember the laughs we shared and the skies we flew together.
"You were my mentor, my instructor, but most importantly a truly great human.
"You will be missed so much and never forgotten by this fellow aviator. You are forever flying now my friend and I long for the day we are reunited in heaven. God rest your soul Ara.”
The pilot would have been the one to make the final decision on whether to fly, the FAA confirmed to The Sun.
They also confirmed that Ara had a current license to fly using instruments – called IFR.
However he was flying without instruments on Sunday morning up until the crash that killed Bryant, according to flight data, using a type of flying called Special Visual Flight Rules (VFR), where a pilot navigates by sight.
Questions remain about the cause of the crash and a local and federal investigation is still underway.
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